I’ve always loved horses. I’m not one of those people who collects horse figurines or has a set of Black Beauty sheets on the bed with a matching poster, but I’ve always tried to go horseback riding every time a set of hooves presented themselves. Of course, my dad always had a horror story connected to any new challenge I wanted to undertake. “You want to go horseback riding? I knew a fellow once who got bucked from a horse and kicked in the head; he spent the next 23 years living as a vegetable, wearing diapers and drooling on himself. But if you really want to go, I’ll pay for it since we’re on vacation.” When we were on vacation, I was allowed to engage in all kinds of cutting edge and spine-risking endeavors: ski lifts, miniature golf, that pancake house with a health code rating of only 63 . . . the world was my oyster – raw and on the half shell. But all paralytic hazards considered, I really did want to go. So at this stage in my life, I’m well past the point of needing permission to grab a saddle and ride off into the sunset. As an adult with a job and a budget that allows for occasional equine excursions, nothing stood in my way of galloping bliss. All I needed was a place that offered horses and trails. I found this place at Skunkie Acres.
I roped Callie and Heather into going with me through the use of modest monetary incentives: I bribed them by paying most of their way. I picked them up, and we cut a path into middle Florida, blasting AC and Christmas songs to compliment the 75° December weather. We found the location easily enough, and as I parked the car, a giant, wooden gate swung open and a boy about ten years old welcomed us. We walked through the gate, and he bolted it behind us. This is normally the part in a horror movie when the audience starts screaming at the saps just wandering around the big screen, “Run! Run for your lives, you naive nincompoops!” But I was not to be deterred. Besides, I had two girls watching my back. Sure, one was under 21 and the other one was terrified of germs, but we were ready for anything that elementary school student threw at us.
Skunkie Acres is a wildlife refuge that rescues endangered or unwanted animals. Their menagerie ranges from a cougar to wolves to marmosets, all who seem to be living in harmony, albeit in their respective pens. When I asked how they acquired the feline, our 15 year old tour guide responded, “The owner said he had no idea it was going to get that big.” Really? A cougar? Watch a movie sometime, people. The vegetarian wildlife roamed freely, and I had to practically step over a pot-bellied pig sunning himself in a caricature of a pork roast. The yard consisted of sand with a rare tuft of grass, and an aroma lingered in the air that kept us constantly checking the soles of our shoes.
We stepped into the foyer of a double wide trailer that worked as the business office for transactions; through double doors we could see the living area. Even here the symbiotic relationship between man and animal was apparent. A man of large stature and jolly disposition sat behind the desk on one side, and a woman I assumed to be his wife occupied the other. I counted no less than seven children and a pet snake in an aquarium.
One of the younger teens stepped forward with consent forms. “Is anyone here under 16?”
You mean besides you? “No, we’re in the clear on that one.”
The man behind the desk arranged a denim jacket around a skunk that was resting on a stool and asked, “What’s your level of riding experience?”
Pitiful to downright pathetic. “We’re beginners,” I said and saw a grey bunny on the floor scratching an ear.
“This is my first time riding,” Callie offered, so there would be no mistake when it came time to parcel out the steeds.
“Your first time? How about that? We’ve got some horses lined up that have never even been ridden yet!” He laughed, and Callie and Heather looked at me before joining in.
I paid the man, patted a cat on the head and asked about a pit stop at the ladies’ room before we got started. The young gentleman who had acted as butler earlier led us to a Porta Potty, followed by a sibling carrying a roll of toilet paper. I took the tissue and handed it to Callie saying, “It’s all about the experience.” She took a deep breath and disappeared inside.
Minutes later she emerged holding her hands in front of her in the manner of a surgeon who’s recently scrubbed in. “Do you have any Germ-X, Aunt Traci?”
This could be the deal breaker right here. “Sorry, hon, but no.”
Her eyes narrowed as she surveyed her fingers, and I could tell she was already working a complex formula of number of fingers multiplied by the minutes of contamination compounded by the amount of animal fur . . . She was going to be one busy girl when she got home. But as with any military agent equipped with survival training, she was not to be derailed by a minor glitch. She rubbed her hands against her jeans and set off for the horses. A young dog trailed at her heels, and a peacock had to drift out of the way. We were ready to ride.
© 2012 – Traci Carver